Canada has more and more older workers in its labour force in recent years. All levels of government encourage the engagement of older workers who offer value to our economy and the broader society. Yet negative beliefs and attitudes about older workers, in the form of stereotypes, persist and may impact their well-being and labour force participation.
Negative stereotypes can lead to discriminatory practice from hiring through to workforce exit and can contribute to older workers’ lower feelings of self-worth.
Recent research and the evidence prepared before the pandemic provides insight into common stereotypes about older workers, stereotype holders, and factors that perpetuate the stereotypes.
Exploring the stereotypes
Age-based stereotyping in the workplace is complex and difficult to disentangle. A framework helps to visualize and understand stereotypes at three different levels: individual, organizational and societal and can be both positive and negative.
Individual level stereotypes about older workers’ competence, adaptability (most often associated with technology and learning) and warmth (meaning sincere, kind, or trustworthy) are most common. Competence describes a variety of traits, including being capable, skillful and intelligent.
For example, older workers have been described both as “warm” but resistant to change or lacking adaptability.
Individual level stereotypes also include assumptions about older workers’ health and work-life balance.
Perceptions at the organization level suggest that older workers are costly to employ and train, and are unfit for promotion.
In society, broad assumptions exist that more older workers and delayed retirement will mean fewer opportunities for younger workers to enter the workforce. Retirement age norms may also contribute to perceptions that adults should exit the labour force at a certain age.
Managers across sectors and industries also hold stereotypes about older workers that may contribute to discrimination; however, managers’ own ages may have a mediating effect.
For older workers, experiencing and/or perceiving stereotyping puts them at risk of internalizing these beliefs and holding negative attitudes towards work, with potentially negative consequences for their labour force participation and mental health. Of note: women perceive that they are being stereotyped more often than men. Evidence shows that certain industries, notably finance, insurance, retail and information technology, may also hold more negative age-based stereotypes.
And, most negative stereotypes appear to attribute the characteristics of the minority of older persons who have health and cognitive challenges to all older workers rather than the facts surrounding older adults in today’s labour force.
Addressing the stereotypes
There are initiatives aimed at increasing older adults’ labour force participation, but few if any focus specifically on addressing stereotypes about older workers.
Existing research recommends highlighting positive characteristics of older adults, addressing discrimination in the workplace through targeting practices from hiring through to exit, and using awareness-raising initiatives to discredit stereotypes. Suggested actions include:
1) Resources such as tool kits and guides for employers are emerging that foster age-friendly workplaces and the recruiting, and/or, retaining of older workers.
2) Efforts by employers should include creating positive intergenerational contact and a culture of inclusion.
3) Awareness initiatives are needed that target older adults, employers and employees, and the general public. Key messages to include are: challenging notions of retirement age norms, recognizing the value and contribution of older adults to the economy and society, examining negative stereotype implications for health, and recognizing the diversity and experiences of older age cohorts today may be different than previous cohorts.
Age-based stereotyping in the workplace is complex; positive stereotypes exist alongside negative ones. While some research points to factors like age, job status, and societal norms as contributing to stereotypes, there is a lack of empirical evidence from Canada to corroborate these claims.
The data on stereotyping are largely based on studies 10-20 years old, so caution should be exercised in relying on these sources, particularly with regard to stereotypes and evidence about older workers and technology.
The perspectives of employers/managers and older workers are most commonly reported and there is some evidence to suggest that holding negative age-based stereotypes lessens as one becomes older. The intersection of age-based stereotypes with other stereotypes, such as those found in race and gender, need more investigation.
Information on how identity (including gender), diversity, and living environment mediate negative perceptions of older adults would assist initiatives targeting ageism.
The changing labour market and what it may mean for understanding older worker stereotypes is also worthy of consideration.
Federal/Provincial/Territorial Ministers Responsible for Seniors Forum
For the full report, visit canada.ca